How the 99 percent fly (hint: it's not in business class)

Airplane upgrades point to the growing income inequality on the ground, as coach becomes even more like steerage

Many travelers assume the days of flying in high style were in the 1950s. But you still can, if you pay enough.
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Sliding doors that form private suites. Fifteen-inch screens for your viewing pleasure. Seats that turn into lie-flat beds and even offer massages.

The swanky new premium cabins unveiled earlier this month by JetBlue Airways inspired much media gushing and corporate hyperbole, with the airline's new 16-seat business class set to start next spring on A321 aircraft flying nonstop routes between New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"Our customers have requested more premium options on our transcontinental flights, and we listened," said Dave Barger, the airline's chief executive, as he showed off the new seats at the Global Business Travel Association's annual convention in early August, the industry's major trade show, which drew 7,000 attendees this year to San Diego.

For JetBlue, the new seats are a big step – an all-coach airline that's decided to enter the realm of premium-class travel. But for the flying public that isn't paying top-dollar to avoid the worsening miseries of coach travel, the JetBlue initiative also illuminates the growing upstairs-downstairs divisions in the air -- and even on the ground. From back in the cattle-car environs of coach, the airlines' lunge for high-end travelers, while squeezing basic comfort for those in the cheap seats, can be seen as a clear analogy of the growing inequality across the economic spectrum.

For example, in the slowly recovering U.S. economy, luxury goods strongly outpace overall retail sales; five-star hotels are seeing the most robust growth of any segment in the hotel industry; and tier-scale penthouses in Manhattan have tipped the $100 million mark. Gulfstream has racked up more than 200 orders for its new globe-spanning G650 private jet, which lists at $65 million "green" – that is, before the millions more that a buyer must spend on soft-leather seats and other luxury cabin fittings. Not to mention paying a crew to fly the plane on demand.

Good times roll, but for who?

But as the good times roll for the one -- or perhaps five -- percent, the middle class struggles to stay afloat, and America's working poor languish. As Labor Day approaches, Oxfam America released a poll Wednesday indicating that a majority of the working poor "believe it is more common for middle-class people to fall out of the middle class than for low-income people to rise into the middle class.''

For millions of low-wage workers, "Labor Day is another long day on the job, doing hard work, often at irregular hours, for low pay and few benefits," said Raymond C. Offenheiser, the president of the antipoverty group's American division.

Class distinctions are especially apparent in air travel where, after all, everyone is flying in close physical proximity. While the golden age of air travel is widely believed to belong to the 1950s, it's actually now – if you can afford to sit up front, with the flat-bed seats, haute cuisine, excellent wine, noise-canceling headphones, and big personal video screens. In back, passengers squirm in seats with 28 or 31 inches of legroom, lucky to get a tiny bag of nuts and a soda, often lined up six or eight deep to use bathrooms that become ever more squalid with the length of a flight.

Airlines work assiduously to devise ever more obvious ways to differentiate the premium customers from the hoi polloi, even to the extent of cutting service in markets that don't supply enough high-end travelers. Premium class travel, which accounts for about eight percent of all global air traffic, grew 4.1 percent in June compared with June 2012, according to the International Air Transport Association (PDF).

But as the airlines improve space, comfort and luxury for those paying $6,000 or $12,000 in the front of long-haul aircraft (Emirates, for example, even has showers in the two first-class lavatories on its A380 aircraft) the back of the plane resembles steerage more than ever, a situation that’s aggravated by the fact that airplanes are now flying with more seats occupied than ever. On most flights, all of the seats are occupied.

Caste system in coach

The caste system isn't confined to premium vs. economy. Customers are increasingly stratified even throughout lowly coach, where airlines have devised new strategies to squeeze extra revenue by providing some coach seats in so-called economy-plus sections with a few inches of extra legroom – at  higher fares. Meanwhile, airlines are also charging extra fees to claim the less-awful seats in the rest of coach – that is, for aisle seats and even window seats closer to the front. Typically today, a traveler who books a trip at the basic coach fare can only obtain a seat assignment (without paying $20 to $90 or more extra per flight, that is) from among a paltry selection of available coach inventory, mostly the dreaded middle-row seats back by the loos.

Overall, flying economy has become so unattractive that some frequent travelers won't go long-distances unless they're in the front of the plane. This segment consists both of those who can afford to fly business or first class, as well as those who have enough standing in their companies or professions to demand premium travel.

The spread between coach and premium is considerable, even though premium fares on the fiercely competitive transatlantic market have fallen in recent years. For example, the last-minute roundtrip coach fare on Delta Air Lines between Atlanta and London Heathrow was $1,484 recently, compared with $6,523 in Delta's "business/first" cabin, with lie-flat seats.

But people are willing to pay the difference and Blake Fleetwood knows why. He's the president of Cook Travel in New York, which specializes in first-class and business-class travel. Travelers in the graying generation who long ago embraced rock-bottom coach charter fares and youth hostels now tell him they've had it with flying coach.

"That huge demographic, the Baby Boom who have ruled the roost for so long, they’re getting wider and wealthier. And I'll tell you, once we can get them into a business-class seat, they just don't want to go back. The torture is so horrible in economy that they will pay four or five times the price to get into a business class seat, because there is such a difference now between coach and premium."

Food prepared by celebrity chefs and served on designer china with fine wines; large high-definition video screens, exclusive luxury lounges at airports; lie-flat beds with high-end bedding – these are now becoming standard in the international premium cabin, further increasing the attractiveness of the high-priced cabins over those wretched quarters in coach.

Fleetwood said, "While the airlines are shrinking their systems and making coach more cramped, they're all upgrading the premium cabins. The old business class of a few years ago is no longer good enough."

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